Mitch Albom: In the Philippines, books are still precious

By MITCH ALBOMFebruary 24, 2014 

MANILA, Philippines -- The white-haired woman is short but stands straight, in a pink blouse and flat shoes, with mostly unwrinkled skin, a wide nose and a broad smile that nearly leaps from her face when she laughs. You congratulate her on being 90 years old, and she holds up a finger and says: "Ninety-one this year." You ask her the secret of her longevity, and she says, "Work every day."

You ask her about the early days of her first bookstore, opened during World War II, and she rolls her eyes and says the Japanese soldiers censored every publication, especially those from overseas, ripping out the pages they didn't like. After a while, she feared selling American books at all because -- she runs a finger across her throat -- "the Japanese cut your head off."

Her name is Socorro Ramos, and she started that bookstore in 1942 with her husband, Jose, as a small stall in an old section of downtown Manila. Who opens a bookstore during a war? They got by selling candies, soaps and slippers because books were just too dangerous. She let them pile up in the back until the fighting was over.

"I hide them," she says.

The street was nearly destroyed by fire in 1945, so she and her husband rebuilt their place as another stall. Then, three years later, a typhoon hit and destroyed that structure and all the merchandise.

Once more they rebuilt. They threw all their time and money into a new building. She called it the National Book Store because, she says, "I saw the name on the cash register, 'National,' and I thought, 'That is nice.' "

Today, the National Book Store is the largest book and stationery chain in the Philippines, the Barnes & Noble of this country, with nearly 150 stores operating under several names. And Ramos still runs the show, coming into the office every day. According to her grandson, Miguel, who is the marketing director, "She still signs all the checks. She still makes the big decisions. And if she wants something, it doesn't matter what anyone says -- not the board, not anybody -- she gets it."

Ramos' fierce dedication to the book business is reflective of an attitude in the Philippines that writers so appreciate: a deep love of stories and words. The literacy rate here is over 95 percent, despite roughly a quarter of the population living below the poverty line.

I have been here since early this past week and have seen 11-year-olds embracing paperback books like prized possessions. In fact, readers here cover their paperbacks in plastic to preserve them.

In the U.S., we rarely bother to do that with hardbacks.

The book world is clearly changing, shrinking, consolidating, increasingly going digital. Young people now read books on their cell phones, scrolling with their fingers. The cheap price of a digital download makes buying an actual book an extravagance. I fear the tactile book, lovely as it is, will one day go the way of the record album, doomed to a small section on the back shelves or a dusty specialty store.

So it is heartening to be in a place where carrying a book is like carrying a treasure chest. The digital market remains small in the Philippines, "because people like to hold onto their authors," Miguel Ramos says. And with an average family income of around $4,000 U.S. -- and with even paperbacks costing around $10 U.S. -- you can understand why.

I had the chance to speak to a group of book lovers last Friday night, and Socorro Ramos sat in the front, on a couch, her white hair pulled back, a serious but approving look on her face. When a 12-year-old boy asked me, "What advice do you give young writers?" I said, "It may sound simple, but, read -- read a lot."

Socorro nodded her head vigorously.

You think about a makeshift stall, about the Japanese ripping pages out of books during a war, about a warehouse of words being hidden from soldiers, about fires and typhoons and resilience, about a woman born just after World War I still coming into the office today and signing the checks -- all from a love of books -- and you have to smile.

"You tell a good story," Socorro said after my talk was over.

Not as good as hers.

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Email, malbom@freepress.com.

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